Page 2 of 5
When I arrived at the refuge, I understood why Roshi Joan had brought me there. Among Prajna’s tangle of wildflowers and groves of tall aspens, she is more expansive, at ease. I found her propped on pillows beside a plate-glass window, laptop on lap. We spoke about her life’s work and about where she is and who she is at this pivotal time.
“I’m a kind of ‘plain rice’ Buddhist,” Roshi Joan said. “I’ve seen some really amazing things, but they haven’t amazed me.” She describes “plain rice” Buddhism as the meditation of everyday life: “When it’s time to meditate, you meditate, and when it’s time to make a bed, you make a bed. Not very exciting but, actually, exciting. The fierce kind of excitement. Excitement without excitation. It’s about being alive.”
As a child growing up in Hanover, New Hampshire, Joan Halifax learned early about illness and death. When she was four, a virus attacked her eye muscles, leaving her bedridden and functionally blind for two years. Although she felt alone and vulnerable, she found a dear companion in her African-American nanny, Lilla, who told stories at her bedside.
Her grandmother, too, was a role model of caregiving, often sitting with dying friends in her Georgia neighborhood. “She normalized death for me,” Halifax says. But her grandmother’s own death was a long, hard, and lonely process in a nursing home. Upon viewing the open casket at the funeral and seeing her grandmother’s face finally at peace, Halifax writes, “I realized how much of her misery had been rooted in her family’s fear of death, including my own. At that moment, I made the commitment to practice being there for others as they died.”
As a student at Tulane University in the mid-sixties, Halifax got involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements; she read D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts and taught herself to meditate. After obtaining her doctorate in medical anthropology, she began working with dying people at the University of Miami School of Medicine. She went on to research, with her then-husband Stanislov Grof, the use of LSD as a supportive therapy for dying people. As they wrote in their 1977 book, The Human Encounter with Death, Grof and Halifax found that LSD alleviated patients’ fears, transforming the process of dying into “an adventure in consciousness rather than the ultimate biological disaster.”
As an anthropologist, she studied the Dogon people of Africa and the Huichol Indians of Mexico, where she witnessed shamans passing through metaphorical experiences of death and rebirth, emerging as wiser and more powerful “wounded healers” for having endured suffering. For several years she studied shamanism and Buddhism in parallel, illuminating their connections in her popular 1993 book The Fruitful Darkness, which is given to wild, poetic flights of dreams and visions. Ultimately, however, she chose Buddhism as her path. She studied with the Korean master Seung Sahn for ten years and later received dharma transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh.
Over the decades that followed, Roshi Joan sat with dying people, in silence and in conversation, a practice she continues to this day. Drawing on Buddhist practice and principles to guide her responses, she tries to help patients meet their challenges with awareness; both she and the patient “bear witness” to whatever emotions and experiences arise. In an initiative to also support caregivers, Halifax founded the Project on Being with Dying, a training program for professionals in end-of-life care, now in its fifteenth year.
If these projects weren’t ambitious enough, Halifax also built two spiritual communities. In 1979 she founded The Ojai Foundation, a rustic Californian retreat center nicknamed “The Wizard’s Camp” for the extraordinary faculty that Halifax invited, ranging from indigenous teachers to Western academics. This center hosted some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s first meditation retreats in the United States, as well as workshops on chaos theory, ethnobotany, and dream research.
Then in 1992, Laurance Rockefeller and Richard Baker Roshi gave Halifax a house in New Mexico, between the Santa Fe River and Cerro Gordo Mountain. She set about building a new retreat center from scratch, regreening the trodden dessert land. Now, Upaya Zen Center is a sprawling complex of adobe buildings, with a spacious zendo and lush gardens.